Ode to a nightingale

Posted on April 9, 2016


Reflections on the peerless P Susheela, who’s found her way into the record books.

When I learnt that P Susheela had found her way into the Guinness Book of World Records and the Asia Book of Records for singing the most number of songs in Indian languages, there were two reactions. The first, a smile – for the singer was such a part of my growing-up years. By the time my generation came along in the 1970s, Susheela had already completed two decades of singing, but because audio-cassette recording shops had not yet proliferated, music still meant only whatever was aired on TV and the radio – you breathed it all in, old songs, new songs, and it all became part of your consciousness. This was possibly the last generation whose music wasn’t just their music, the music of their times, but also the music of their parents’ times, their grandparents’ time.

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The second reaction was that of incredulity. According to the Guinness Book of Records, Susheela has sung 17695 songs. The Asia Book of Records has the number as 17330. And apparently, these are just the songs she sang from the 1960s onwards, which leads one to wonder just what the figures would be if we included her output from the previous decade. I got down to some number-crunching. Even if we stick to the figure 17000, and spread it over the three decades during which Susheela sang the most songs, the 1960s to the 1990s, the average is 1.5 songs a day. And it’s not just the singing. It’s learning the words, the tune. It’s learning the enunciation (because those days, you couldn’t get away sounding like today’s Tamil-film heroines, those imports from Ludhiana who give interviews to the Chennai media about how they love idlis). It’s getting in sync with a live orchestra, where one mistake meant that the song would have to be recorded all over again. You have to really like what you are doing to do this day after day, year after year, decade after decade.

But then, what was not to like? There must have been days you’d sing a duet with TM Soundararajan. Say, Paattukku paatteduthu. Nearly six minutes of song, with two vocal parts and several instrumentalists, including someone who appears to be playing a theremin. It is the theremin, right? What other instrument could sound so eerie, as though the breeze were transforming, before your eyes, into a quavering ghost? Where did MS Viswanathan get it, and how did he find someone to play it? But enough about the theremin. The song itself isn’t just one set of tunes for the lines in the opening part and another set for the stanzas. Each stanza is a kind of variation on a theme – similar-sounding, yet different. And the rhythms aren’t even. Some lines are syllabic, some melismatic. How many days must Susheela have spent on this single song, and how many songs did she cram into other days in order to make up that average?

Then there must have been days with PB Srinivas on the adjacent microphone. Like the day the Viswanathan-Ramamurthy duo decided to adapt a couple of lines from a Mexican bolero titled Besame mucho and make Anubavam pudhumai. The result: a sensuous tune that unfurls like smoke from a post-coital cigarette. And what pleasures along the way. One of the repeating lines is whistled. The first line of Susheela’s stanza is whispered into the night. Or think of the day the same singers were recording Kaatru veliyidai Kannamma, the words by Subrahmanya Bharathi. PB Srinivas sings the opening line. Susheela, as Kannamma, hums, as though mimicking the gentle breeze he’s alluding to. His words get more intoxicating. He says that when he utters her name, it’s like tasting nectar. So he utters the name again. And again. KannammaKannamma… The listener has it easier. He just has to wait for Susheela’s voice, with its hint of nasality in the higher registers, the aural answer to the mole on Elizabeth Taylor’s cheek.

Even the days there was no one else, when it was just a solo, it mustn’t have taken much for Susheela to will herself to work. Imagine missing out on Chittukuruvi mutham koduthu, for instance. Or Pakkathu veettu paruva machan. Or Oru naal iravil. Or Kalyana pandhal alangaaram. Maybe I am focusing too much on songs from the sixties, with not a mention from the Ilayaraja era, not even Susheela’s lovely, languorous humming that opens the prelude of Paadavandhadhor gaanam. But when the number is 17695 (or 17330), you need a book. And assistance from those who know the songs she sang in Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Hindi. The only Hindi songs I knew of hers are the ones from Akbar, the dubbed-in-Tamil version of Mughal-e-Azam, so I decided to check what else was out there. To my amazement, I found a song by, of all people, Bappi Lahiri. It’s a duet with Kishore Kumar, from a 1986 potboiler named Singhasan. Susheela doesn’t sound very interested in the song, which goes Tere liye maine janam liya. Could you blame her? It’s like hiring Sherlock Holmes because you can’t find your reading glasses.

P Susheela has often been compared to Lata Mangeshkar. Not only are their voices similar – they’re both sopranos – they are also held responsible for the virginal image of the heroine. But can you really blame them? Silvery, high-pitched voices aren’t exactly the best at projecting breathy sex appeal, even if there was an Anubavam pudhumai here, a Naanamo there. This type of voice is regarded less reverently in some quarters. When I played these songs to some non-Indian friends, raised on a diet of rock and jazz singers, they winced at the higher notes. And then I started noticing the extraordinarily high pitches in the songs, some of which are listed above. It doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t make me re-evaluate Susheela’s marvellous songs, her marvellous singing. It’s just an extra level of awareness, like realising your house is a little draughty when a guest points it out. But to you, it’s always been home, it always will be home.

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